My problem with so many biopics is that they don’t tell us anything new. When you have seen one artist’s biopic, you have seen most of them. Hint: they are usually tortured as they create works that will one day become masterpieces. When you have seen one politician’s biopic, you know the main driving force in their life is the quest for power. When you have seen one musician’s biopic, you know that they struggle for years before becoming a success and addiction will probably play a part in the journey. Because we know these things, when the film decides to tell a straight-forward narrative, it can quickly get pretty boring. Some of these more plainspoken life stories have the necessary elements to help set them apart – a magnetic, engaging performance from the lead, or some unusual hook in the narrative - many more don’t. When they don’t, you have to wonder why you paid to see something on the big screen when a basic cable viewing would have been more appropriate.
Then, you have “Get On Up”, the new film about the life of James Brown, the iconic R & B singer. Written by John-Henry and Jez Butterworth (“Edge of Tomorrow”, “Fair Game”) and Steven Baigelman (“Feeling Minnesota”) and directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help”), “Get On Up” provides a more impressionistic, stream-of-consciousness narrative. Elements of Brown’s life are connected and depicted based on a theme, rather than in a linear way. While this may sound confusing, it actually works really well for a number of reasons.
Starting in 1968, we first meet James and his band as they travel through war-torn Vietnam, to put on a USO show at an army base. Their army transport plane is hit just as Brown is complaining to the pilot about the restrictions placed on his band by the Army; he can only bring six of his musicians with him, rather than the whole band. Doesn’t the Army know he needs the whole band to put on a great James Brown show? The plane’s engine is hit and the pilot manages to make a safe landing allowing Brown to make a late entrance. Later, Brown talks to his manager (Dan Aykroyd) about what meeting with President Johnson will do to his reputation in the African American community. Later still, we see the photo-op between Johnson and the musician. Between each of these segments, the narrative flips back and forth to Brown’s childhood growing up with a very, very poor father in rural Georgia, his time working at a brothel for Aunt Honey (Octavia Spencer), working his way up one gig at a time, his loyal friend Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, HBO’s “True Blood”) at his side throughout. The thematic editing joins events because they are related or similar. This is certainly not how most films are put together, and you almost never see this type of thing in a big-budget studio film. But this editing style also does two things; it forces the viewer to pay closer attention and it makes more of an impact. Because the narrative isn’t linear, we can’t take the next scene for granted and have to keep our eyes open and continue paying attention, or we might miss something. Also, because the editing combines events based on subject, we see a part of James Brown’s life and then see another event related to that in some way. This really makes the portrait of the musician’s life more memorable because it further reinforces the current message in our minds. Essentially, we are getting the ‘Cliff Notes’ version of Brown’s life, something I often rail against, but Taylor presents them in a way that gives a more complete portrait of the icon’s life.
The filmmaking style also helps to make Chadwick Boseman’s performance even better. Boseman, the star of “42”, plays Brown from teenager right through his 60s. Because we meet Brown in the middle of his career, we don’t really have a chance to acclimate. James Brown is there, on screen, at the height of his career, and Boseman is playing him, bringing him to life. We don’t have the time to look for faults and inconsistencies and we accept the actor’s portrayal much more readily. But Boseman’s performance is very good; there aren’t many, if any inconsistencies to find. As the film flashes back and forth, we eventually see Brown as a teenager. Boseman seems to shrink in on himself a little bit. He is pretty confident for a young kid, but he still has a long way to go before he becomes Mr. James Brown. Because we have seen the singer at the height of his career, this earlier image catches us a little off guard but it proves to be a good move, making us invested in and more readily accepting of the performance. And the story flips back to Brown’s childhood, showing his life with his extremely poor father (Lennie James) and his mother (Viola Davis). At this point, he is played by a very quiet Jamarion Scott. Because this version of Brown is so quiet, it is startling to see how full of bravado he will later become.
It is a little unnerving to see Brown at so many stages in his career, played by the same actor, with so little make-up. The hairstyle changes a little, but it is basically Boseman playing the musician throughout the film. From the early 50s through the late 80s, his appearance doesn’t change all that much. This may seem a little unnatural, but if you look at Brown at different stages in his career, he was remarkably ageless. As he aged, his face became a little fuller, but it wasn’t marked by a lot of lines and he certainly never had any gray hair. Some of this was probably due to enhancements, whatever they may be, but the film portrayal seems to stay true to the real man.
The one thing the film doesn’t do a lot of is explore the adult James Brown’s relationships. At one point, he is suddenly married (his wife is played by Jill Scott) and at another his jealousy causes him to accuse his wife of fooling around. This seems incomplete until you think about the whole film. Brown didn’t have a lot of relationships for two reasons - because he was too focused on his career and he had a terrible childhood. The two people who meant so much to him disappointed him. His dad basically gave him away to the owner of a whorehouse where his job was to lead on-leave servicemen and other clients into Aunt Honey’s (Spencer) home and into the arms of her girls. His mother (Davis) leaves him behind with his father, unable to take the abuse any longer. Because of the actions of his parents, he has to learn to survive on his own. He might hear someone make a comment, leading him to take that idea and run. Eventually, he becomes “James Brown” and comes up with his own ideas and follows through with them, whether anyone else agrees or not.
Throughout his life, the one constant is Bobby Byrd, played by Nelsan Ellis. Brown becomes a member of his friend’s gospel choir and takes Byrd along as the band morphs into new entities eventually headlined by Brown. Just as the band is about to hit it big, the producers and promoters tell Brown they only want him, the rest of the band is not important. The rest of the band listens to this news with disgust and walk out. The next day, Bobby is back at Brown’s side. Byrd puts up with a lot of abuse, but he remains loyal throughout. As the film continues, you see Byrd’s eyes become a little dead inside. He is remaining loyal to his friend, enjoys sharing what little of the spotlight Brown allows, but the mental abuse from his friend eventually changes their relationship; they start out as friends and Byrd becomes Brown’s employee.
Dan Aykroyd plays Ben Bart, Brown’s longtime manager. It seems to be the one professional relationship James values and maintains throughout his life. Their relationship is never depicted as anything other than professional, so it would seem Brown valued this aspect of their friendship more than anything else.
Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer co-starred in Tate’s previous film “The Help”. Each earned a lot of praise and earned a lot of award nominations. Spencer even won an Oscar. In “Get On Up”, their roles are basically extended cameos, but each makes an impact. As ‘Aunt Honey’, Spencer provides a background for the period of Brown’s adolescence. Davis is very good as his mother, a woman who puts up with a lot of physical and emotional abuse, but can’t seem to turn away, unless forced.
“Get On Up” is an interesting, well-made, enjoyable biopic of a musician. That isn’t something you can say often; too many biopics follow a tried and true formula to tell their story. Director Tate Taylor and the writers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth smash those conventions and present an almost impressionistic portrait of the music icon, Mr. James Brown.